Kea Tawana, The Ark
In what I am calling the weather, anti-blackness is pervasive as climate. The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies. —Christina Sharpe, The Weather
as I watch your arm/your brown arm
just before it moves
all things are dear
all things are dear
—June Jordan, “On a New Year’s Eve”
As of yet, there is no general consensus regarding the finer details of Kea Tawana’s biography. According to an obituary published in the Times Herald-Record immediately following her death on August 4, 2016, she was “born on a … reservation [and] ran away from home at the age of 12.” But by Tawana’s own account of things, the artist was born in Japan in 1935, moved to the United States with her father and two brothers when she was twelve years old (her mother and sister, Tawana claimed, were killed by an air raid during World War II), and eventually settled in Newark, New Jersey. It was there, almost five decades later, that Kea Tawana would assemble her Ark.
By all accounts, the Ark project was a wonder to behold in person. The vessel stood over three stories high, spanned eighty-six feet in length, and was constructed from the ground up with wood and scrap metal Tawana gathered, without assistance, from various abandoned locales throughout the city. In his 1987 profile of Tawana’s Ark, Chip Brown of the Chicago Tribune writes:
The ark is an elegy to the lost communities of the Central Ward. Everything but tar paper and nails has been scavenged from the ruins of her environment. She has reused the lumber of demolished homes and bars, columns of churches, pieces of orphanages and synagogues … She figured an at-sea food storage capacity of 120 days and freshwater storage of 1,400 gallons. Her sketches called for a chapel, a library, a museum, a conservatory, a greenhouse, a bakery, a laundry, a sick bay, a stained-glass studio and metal shop. She anticipated a crew of a captain, a first officer, six seamen, a cook and two cats. She also envisioned that the ark would be able to mount a credible defense with an arsenal of six quartz pulsar lasers and four 2.5-inch rocket tubes.
Kea Tawana was readying herself for war. And it was war that she found, though not the sort with rocket tubes or pulsar lasers. Tawana’s fiercest battle would be waged between 1982 and 1987, against the elected representatives of the city of Newark tasked with the destruction of the Ark. The Ark was deemed to have violated zoning codes, and was seen as a blight on the city: its rugged, piecemeal exterior directly juxtaposed to the image of a streamlined, modern metropolis.
The story could have ended right there, and almost certainly would have—that is, with the state-sponsored disassembly of the Ark in the first year of its existence—if not for the generosity, and singular courage, of a local group of black parishioners: the membership of one Humanity Baptist Church. Indeed, as soon as news of the Ark’s imminent destruction went public, members of Humanity stepped in and offered the vacant lot next to their sanctuary as a resting place for it. And so, for the next several years, while Tawana battled the city over the right to keep her doomsday vessel intact, the Ark remained on church property, safe, if only temporarily, from harm. Kea Tawana initially built the Ark, she claimed, because there was quote “no safe place on land.” In some sense, it is this very idea— i.e., the ineluctable danger of everyday life within white civil society—that not only animated this specific artistic and architectural project but also serves, we can imagine, as the condition of possibility for her particular, peculiar relation to the predominantly black membership of Humanity Baptist Church, as well as the largely black citizenry of Newark, a community that reacted, by all accounts, rather favorably to Tawana’s project even as it was decried, and ultimately destroyed, by the whims of a state agency.
What was it, exactly, that the black denizens of Newark envisioned when they gazed upon the Ark? What version of the world or possible future? Further, how might we situate this project historically, given the long-standing tradition of artists across the African diaspora crafting arks of all kinds—here I’m thinking of Sun Ra’s world-famous Arkestra, Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, Romare Bearden’s famous painting of Noah’s Ark, as well as the speculative ark of Countee Cullen’s The Lost Zoo—in response to a global order that depends upon their subjugation for its very coherence? Put somewhat differently, I wonder how we might approach the reception of Kea Tawana’s Ark in order to theorize the poetic, as well as the political, uses of a certain strain of black apocalypticism. This is a mode of black thought that is not only concerned with the world’s end in the same register as the Martinican poet Aimé Cesaire, one of the founders of the Négritude movement, but grounds that concern in the rigorous study of the relationship between blackness and the world in another sense. That is to say, black study as planetary thinking. Black study as ecological thought at the edge of the known or knowable universe. Black study as a commitment to care for the earth. In Camilo Vergara’s 1987 New York Times opinion piece, “Why Newark’s Ark Should Be Saved,” he cites the observation of a six-year-old girl from Newark named Taisha, who is quoted as saying “the ark should be a monument, like the Statue of Liberty.” My analysis is ultimately grounded in Taisha’s insistence that the Ark—as opposed to any number of more traditional U.S. American symbols—served as a steady, life-affirming reminder of the promises and unfettered possibilities of the black aesthetic tradition. Indeed, that the Ark represents much of what truly belongs to black people in modernity: the water, the weather, the earth that is yet to come.
There is a distinctly ecological tenor to the image systems that black writers have used in imagining the end of the world. These writers call to the fore a vision of civil society in which gratuitous violence against black people is not aberrational but algorithmic—which is to say, inextricably bound up with the normative order of things—and they provide a critical vocabulary through which we are able to imagine other, more ethical methods of organizing human and nonhuman life.
Cesaire once wrote that “the only thing worth beginning is the end of the world.” The antipastoral poetry produced by twenty-first-century black writers helps create a much larger context founded on this claim, and helps clarify the broader human vision of this cloud of witnesses, many of whom are attempting to craft what I would like to think of as a kind of black geopoetics. The Scottish poet and critic Kenneth White coined the term geopoetics in 1978, and defined it as “concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world.” Black geopoetics is a poetics of ground, a poetry of mud, of earth, of the black planet Public Enemy claims we are all made to fear, even and especially those of us who stand to benefit from its arrival. What sort of poetics rises to the fore when home is defined by an ongoing antagonism? By what Colin Dayan and others have described as an existential experience marked, and marred, by civic death, but also the myriad forms of life, of living, that are energized within its field of reach?
The radical abolitionist dream of a more robust, rigorous language with which to think the ligaments linking freedom and enslavement, confinement and mobility, beast and overseer, extends throughout the black aesthetic tradition, and is especially visible in our current historical moment. The contemporary poet Phillip B. Williams’s poem, “Mastery,” (published in issue no. 223 of The Paris Review) is deeply concerned with such matters. The poem opens with regicide on its mind:
The masters are yet dead. Wanting to be human,
I tried to rewrite “The Waste Land.” The canon’s reach
casts ruinous light. The masters’ pens breach
this page where, above, my own hand spectates. Babylon
risen, exorcism in reverse, whose nature upended now?
If I remember my own name, then I can ego
my way through this crowd of shadows
that cross the bridge of my back mid-bow.
I slept in the Fifth House of Modernism
beneath stars that offered no light—dust
full of fear, my own dead skin encrusting
room corners and my mind in a schism
between image and luck.
Here, the juxtaposition of darkness and light occupy center stage. The way this particular conflict shows up throughout the poem recalls the nineteenth-century poet James Monroe Whitfield’s “The Misanthropist”—as it is similarly interested in just this kind of violent interplay between darkness and light—although Williams’s speaker casts the question as a conflict, in the first instance, over craft, over mastery of language. It is nonetheless striking to observe the similarities in terms of how both writers approach this question of being-in-the-world for the black (anti-)citizen, the black child, the black writer. The masters in question here each die a death that lacks finality or closure. Even from the grave, their influence delimits the choices that are available. Note the critical inversion of the light/dark binary as it appears in these lines. Rather than offering wisdom or transcendental power, Williams describes the knowledge passed down by the masters as “ruinous.” Still, it is this light that provides a path to walk by, this light that illuminates the set of signposts he might follow on his journey toward human community. This is one of the central conflicts of “Mastery,” as well as within Williams’s broader oeuvre. Understanding, as he does, this historical relationship between mastery of the Word and the Anthropological Machine that has been described in great detail by Giorgio Agamben and others, Williams’s speaker evocatively locates his desire for the safeguards of mimesis, of echoing the forms and broader protocols handed down by Eliot, among other canonized white writers. The specter of this influence—their ghosts lingering in his mind, upon his shoulder, beneath his tongue—threatens to tear the page asunder.
Williams’s speaker strains against this influence through his invocation of other authorial traditions, other canons. One example is his use of the phrase “the bridge of my back”—which calls to mind the 1981 feminist anthology edited by Cherrie Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back. This works to upset the domination. Movement is indeed possible, we are told, but only through recourse to the ancestors, the languages and lyric sensibilities that have always thrived at the underside of the modern world system. Though the speaker attempts to reconcile his dark body and the Eurocentric body of work he must learn in order to survive, the shadows of the darker tradition he calls home nonetheless remain attached to him, refusing to die in the wake of the Western canon’s ruinous enlightenment. The speaker is at war with himself, with his sound colonial education, and names this conflict as a matter of cosmology. As part and parcel of a much larger, prolonged struggle between the acknowledged Living, and all those said to be dead or else animate objects without interior worlds:
“Away! Away! I wish the masters dead.” To be freed
I tried to revise “The Waste Land” but blacker,
where Margaret Garner speaks to Margaret Walker
on a barge crossing the Mississippi River. I see
the aftermath of this convenience, slow
in the river mud fondling the delay.
They will make it across. They will pray.
They will drown beneath what they know,
that the living have undone so many
and the river’s dark portion was the color
of a baby’s dried blood, the neck wound dolorous
in its grin-shaped curve, another mangled
bridge into history.
Williams makes an explicit turn toward the antipastoral here, invoking a river that refuses any symbolic association with a straightforward, observable telos (an arc or swift movement toward justice) or else the soothing music of a premodern idyll, and instead forces us to confront the legacies of brutality and exchange that mark such spaces. In the speculative historical vision painted by Williams, Margaret Garner—the enslaved woman most widely known for killing her infant child rather than returning to bondage with her baby in tow, and whose story served as source material for Toni Morrison’s Beloved—and Margaret Walker—a poet who served as a central figure of the Chicago Black Renaissance—somehow meet and exchange stories of what they have seen and survived.
The river itself works as a reminder of what these women have loved, lost, seen, destroyed. And yet they continue to move along its currents, refusing to bow or break under the weight of history. Williams describes this survival as a kind of drowning, an ongoing conflict between the knowledge these women hold and a social order that refuses not only that knowledge but their very capacity to hold it, to know anything worth knowing or claim any rights it is bound to respect. He stages this entire encounter against the antipastoral, apocalyptic backdrop of a river the color of a black child’s blood. In doing so, we imagine that he is calling upon the plagues in the Book of Exodus. The poem’s setting is a fusion of both the first plague, the transformation of various bodies of water into blood, and the last, that is, the death of the firstborn. By the conclusion, the reader is left with no concrete sense of the words shared between these two women. In this way, Williams echoes Morrison directly: their story is not one to pass on.
Midway through the poem, the river appears again in a rather dazzling moment of prosopopoeia, one that expands and expounds upon any number of the poem’s central objects of interest:
The river unfurls its god tongue
in Nigger Jim’s voice. He speaks of rivers
as the river, soul grown deep into a river
carving a country like an infant’s throat.
There are many ways to freedom, with a hymn’s
lithe blade or a butcher knife. Even now the blood
that runs through the river runs through my hand,
black as a cock that caws for dawn hilt-to-hide till mum.
Dawn does not know it cannot drown me.
Sunrise gilds all water the same dull pageant
and I am water after all. Sun-rinsed,
my skin coal-hisses, a conquered city, the first flame.
Call me Chicago, call me Lake Michigan.
I, an unnatural mirror for enlightenment,
spit back ash rivaling Pompeii. Relent
to whom, for what? Night will come again.
And, only a single stanza later:
This is the end of the world.
Even an ended world needs a mythology.
Like snow, like breath, like rust, like feet,
night will come again and over a sobbing
woman who has found her mother’s grave
for the first time and succumbed to elegy.
Her cries bleed over the dirt with a strange insistency.
This, then, is how the world ends. With a mythology blurring the borders between black flesh and animate objects of all kinds: animals and rivers, darkness and dirt, monsters, corpses, coal. In a dizzying series of deft, allusive gestures, Williams summons a cohort of characters from across the literary landscape, repurposing their images toward radical ends: Morrison, Garner, Twain, Melville, Hughes. Each of these figures function as a critical component of the broader black antipastoral aesthetic that Williams maintains throughout “Mastery,” one in which we are always already bound to the bodies held within the earth, and all the unfathomable darkness therein. The darkness that refuses to be drowned by dawn. Williams’s speaker is unkillable precisely because he refuses a dominant vision of the Human in favor of the ground, the dust, the water from which he came. Williams’s mythology for the ended world begins in the dark and remains there. It ignores the call of daybreak, and chooses to linger in the spaces outside the ever-expanding reach of modernity’s wartime instruments, its brutal, antiblack imagination. This work invites us into other practices of gathering, other modes of sociality and study, alongside nonhuman forms of life and death. It does not ask us to dream that a new world is on its way. Rather, it invites us to celebrate as if it has already arrived.
In the universe fashioned by Williams, the hard distinction between the grave and the living landscape is softened, blurred, made hazy by the fact that antiblackness is the air itself. Through the harsh reality that his poem refracts, the poet grants us a new and more elaborate human vision, one wherein the world has already in some sense ended, or else is in the process, and black life can flourish. What appears as apocalypticism in Williams is also always and already, I think, a form of Afrofuturism, a willingness to take seriously the idea that any apocalypse is also, quite literally, a revelation, or opening: one wherein black human beings can improvise a radically divergent way of sharing the planet. In this vein, it is as the old saints say. We are in the world but not of it. We desire the end of the world because of a black love that demands such radical dreams. Because, as Henry Dumas states in his own timeless love song: “[we] have to adore the mirror of the earth.” So it is in the name of the black earth, the black shambling bear and favorite daughter of the universe, that these writers militate against the world, and dare to imagine the destruction of the parasitic, geopolitical norms that derogate their people at every turn. In no uncertain terms, this is a poetics of demolition. These are poems that kill. And set ablaze. And build.
Dr. Joshua Bennett hails from Yonkers, New York. He is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016) and Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man, which is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Bennett holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University, and an M.A. in theater and performance studies from the University of Warwick, where he was a Marshall Scholar. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, the New York Times, Poetry, and elsewhere. He is currently a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.
Phillip B. Williams poem “Mastery” was published in issue no. 223 (Winter 2017) of The Paris Review.
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